ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead

I finally read Zone One last week—that is, during my first week with a broken collarbone, while I was regularly ingesting hydrocodone and chasing it with effect-enhancing bourbon. So that may have affected my reading experience a bit (ditto the writing of this post).

[Spoilers follow.]

It’s a bit of a slow burn, Zone One—it opens with the protagonist, Mark Spitz, reminiscing (or the narrator reminiscing for him): “He always wanted to live in New York. His Uncle Lloyd lived downtown on Lafayette, and in the long stretches between visits he daydreamed about living in his apartment.” And Uncle Lloyd’s (always “Uncle Lloyd,” just like it’s always “Mark Spitz”—a nickname, and the only name we’re given)—Uncle Lloyd’s apartment is a recurring motif, an anchor or beacon of sorts for Mark Spitz, though it never quite worked for me (maybe because I have no desire to live in NYC).

The apartment is outside Zone One, the section of lower Manhattan that’s been walled off and cleared of “skels”—the active zombies of the novel. Mark Spitz is part of a three-person civilian sweeper team, tasked with clearing the buildings inside the zone of “stragglers”—zombies who don’t move and don’t respond to external stimuli (until, at the novel’s climax, one does, and the sudden surge in skels suggests that the stragglers have all stopped straggling). It’s a boring job, as there aren’t that many stragglers, and they don’t present a threat—and the rapidity with which the return of “normal civilization” produces monotony and complacency (which prove to be disastrously fatal) is one of the novel’s primary themes.

And so the novel itself is, occasionally, boring—or so I found it.

The action, such as it is, covers three days, but the mostly mundane events of the weekend in question are interwoven with, or supplemented by, or the occasion for, forays into Mark Spitz’s memories, his past (there’s a bit-too-clever recurrent pun on “past”—the survivors all suffer from “post-apocalyptic stress disorder,” PASD, “past”). Whitehead does this well: bits of Mark Spitz’s past surface according to the logic of trauma, which is compelling but inscrutable.

It’s also disorienting: shifts in time are not always clearly marked, and there are several times when returns to the present involve the reader (and sometimes Mark Spitz) missing something important—the narrative equivalent of a pronoun with no antecedent, or an antecedent that’s supplied a dozen pages later. The Lieutenant’s suicide is the most egregious example (although, again, the effect is a good one) (also, again: some of this might have been the chemicals in my system).

Whitehead writes some wonderful sentences—if I’d had the use of both hands, I would’ve tweeted a dozen of them—but there are moments when the narrative as a whole seems less important than the individual sentences that it’s composed of, moments when Whitehead seems to be self-consciously drawing attention to the artistry/artifice of a particular turn of phrase (something I’m also guilty of, of course). These moments of rococo prose are, thankfully, few, and it is of course a matter of taste.

I really enjoyed the novel—it was both fun (mostly) and thought-provoking. It’s one of the very few zombie narratives that I’d call “realistic” (well, as realistic as zombies can be); 28 Days Later is the only other I can think of at the moment, and their realisms are of different sorts. Part of what makes Zone One realistic are the mechanics of the “plague”—the dead don’t rise, one only becomes a skel when bitten, and skels seem to wither (“winnow” is a word Whitehead frequently uses) and even ‘die’ with prolonged lack of food (although they still have unnaturally powerful hands and jaws, though we only see them in action a few times).

Most of the novel’s realism, though, comes from the aforementioned “monotony and complacency” which are concomitant with the return of bureaucracy (a wartime government established in Buffalo) and that bureaucracy’s attempts to restore “normalcy”—an attempt which, at the novel’s end, fails spectacularly, because the world is a fundamentally different place after Last Night:

Why they’d tried to fix this island in the first place he did not see now. Best to let the broken glass be broken glass, let it splinter into smaller and smaller pieces and dust and scatter. Let the cracks between things widen until they are no longer cracks but new places for things. This was where they were now. The world wasn’t ending: it had ended and now they were in the new place. They could not recognize it because they had never seen it before.

The survivors—or all of them except Mark Spitz—have deluded themselves into thinking that “things can go back to how the used to be” (as they do in World War Z), and therefore they all die—or they might as well all die, because Mark Spitz is alone at the novel’s end. The (un)dead have reclaimed Zone One, they’ve overrun the various outposts of the new civilization, Buffalo itself has probably fallen—and Mark Spitz, alone in a fortune-teller’s shop on Gold Street, not only recognizes the new world, but is perfectly adapted to it.

The ending is of the sort that used to irk me—to really piss me off—but that I have come to appreciate more and more: an ending that stops, but does not resolve:

“Fuck it, he thought. You have to learn how to swim sometime. He opened the door and walked into the sea of the dead.”

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